A Cautionary Tale

A Cautionary Tale

There are many external hindrances to success throughout an individual’s lifetime, but, often, internal roadblocks can keep us from being who we aspire to be. How does fear of failure or survivor’s guilt factor into our self-confidence, self-esteem, or desire to achieve? How do fear and shame keep us immobile? Is it easier to accept mediocrity rather than take a chance and risk disaster? This story interprets a well-known Greek myth for a modern audience, reminding us there is a time and place for fearless acts if we are to reach our true potential.

My paper-thin robe billows out over the unforgiving ground. The black earth is covered in pine needles. The steel sky is covered in clouds. Dawn seems about to break. I brace my bare hands against the frozen soil, pushing myself to my feet with a massive groan. I hobble for a few steps, brush myself off, and pick a few pine needles out of my hands. I look out over the landscape. Brittle, shivering trees surround me, growing ever more sparse the further out I look, replaced by continuously thickening snow. Behind me the trees are stronger, thicker, condensing into an evergreen forest. I’d be more sheltered there. I begin to walk further into the trees, but take one last look behind me into the snowfall. A long, drawn-out sentence of white punctuated by a single beige dot. A man. Wearing the same robe as I am, it seems, with what appears to be folded-up wings on his back. His image is blurred, but I see him stop, squinting at me with distrustful eyes. I squint back, trying to determine if he’s dangerous or not. As if in answer, he charges toward me. Unable to run away on what feel like infant legs, I close my eyes and prepare for the worst. I was not, however, prepared for his embrace, which takes both of us to the ground. My shoulder muffles his sobs, and the single word: “Brother.” I freeze. “…who?” He scrambles to his feet and laughs from deep in his chest, offering a hand to help me up. “You, of course!” He claps me on the shoulder affectionately.

“I’m not…I don’t know you.” His face falls. Mistake. He shrinks into himself, nearly swallowed by the wings as he paces. His arms are folded over his chest, the straps that tether wing to wrist digging in as he nearly punctures his forearms with his nails. “Brother…brother is dead.” Suddenly violent, shaking me by the shoulders: “Brother is dead!” I wrench myself from his grasp, and notice blood under his nails. Mine? Shouldn’t that have hurt? He collapses to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest, “Dead, and I wasn’t there to stop him.” I should run away, but feel obligated to help him. He doesn’t seem a threat at the moment, just a pathetic, shaking, terrified creature. I lay a hand on his shoulder; he jumps and then goes back to mumbling. “I wasn’t there…he’s dead…and I wasn’t there….”

“Hey,” I say gently. “You’re shaking. You need to get warm. But don’t worry. The sun will be out soon, and we’ll get somewhere with less snow.”  I look over my shoulder at the thick forest, the inviting green of the firs that could provide some cover from the wind, and maybe a chance for him to dry off.

He is thrown into another frenzy, rocking and shaking harder than ever. “The sun! The sun killed him!”

I’m lost for words. All I can do is to keep standing beside him, useless.

He stands abruptly. “We have to leave before the Sun comes for us!” Hunched over and limping, but fast-paced, he walks away, still mumbling. I roll my eyes and jog to catch up, a bit stronger on my feet than earlier. Maybe I can distract him with conversation. Our proximity allows me to really look at his wings for the first time. They’re intricately fashioned from real feathers, some the size of a finger and others of an arm, on a wooden frame. They blow haphazardly in the wind, almost torn away, as we walk.

brothers walk in the forest

“So, where did you get those wings?”

“Made them,” he mumbles.

“Well, do you fly?”

He stops in his tracks and turns his head slowly to stare gravely into my eyes.

“Never fly.”

That seems like a dead end, and I don’t want to upset him again. Maybe a more practical question: “Where are we?”

He shoots me a sideways glance. “Far away.”

“Far away from what?”

“Far away from the warm. Killed brother.”

He blinks against the snow, caught in his eyelashes and caking around the neckline of his robe. I look down at my own garment and brush some of the snow off, realizing that I should be cold, but in fact feel nothing. And have no idea how I got here. 

“And…why am I here?”

He walks faster, almost running away. I look backwards, considering taking shelter in the woods, but I go after him reluctantly.

“You’re not here…you’re dead…and I wasn’t there to stop you.” He shakes his head feverishly and then looks down, ashamed. I grab his hand. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you need to get—”

But the appalled look on his face makes me trail off. He stares intently at his hands, darting his eyes from one to the other, fingers making small, spasmodic movements. “Can’t feel…can’t feel…can’t feel….”

“Of course you can’t feel them; you’re freezing. We need to get you somewhere warm….”

“ — the warm killed — “

light in the cave

“Listen! The warm will not kill you, ok? The cold will kill you.” I grab him by the shoulders. “Look, the sun is coming up now to help us.” And coming up it is. New rays break over the horizon, scattering themselves across the ice and into my eyes. I take in the surrounding, blanketed hills, the mouths of caves yawning. The snow has ceased; the landscape has stilled.

His shriek disrupts my attempt to get my bearings. I whirl around to see that while I was distracted, he has scrambled into a cave, up a hill not far away, leaving a mess of scattered footprints in the snow. He’s standing at the edge of it, screaming as the light approaches his feet. We lock eyes for a moment. He stops screaming and takes off, like an indignant child, hobbling on frozen feet further in. 

I run toward him, reaching the cave’s entrance, and see him off to the side, nose to the wall, the echo making his ravings sound more like an incantation: “dead…is dead…the warm has killed…I wasn’t there….” As I approach, he hears my footsteps and whirls around. When he sees me, his eyes flood with relief: “Brother.” He places a hand on my cheek, then retracts it, agitated. “Can’t feel…can’t feel…can’t feel….” His breath comes in fast, iridescent puffs. Crystals of ice form at his fingertips, spreading inward toward his core, snowflake patterns beginning to adorn his wings. I catch his eyes with mine. “Listen to me” — I hesitate — “Brother. You’ve got to fly out of here now.” He stares back, for the first time clear and steady. He spreads his wings in painfully slow motion, some of the ice falling to the ground, but quickly replaced. He takes a few shaking steps toward the entrance, trying to take off, but collapses to his side with a thud. Ice crawls out from under his robe, reaching up to his neck. His eyes dart around frantically. I realize that his time for flight has passed.

I drop to my knees and try to place a hand on his back, but it fades right through. I look down at his hands, my blood seemingly evaporating from under his nails. The hand I tried to touch him with, now resting on the cave floor, fades till transparent, the nothing making its way up my arms and legs. I look down at him, curled up and near-gone.

“I have to know. What do you see when you look at me? Why are you so afraid? Who is this brother of yours?”

With one final puff of icy breath:

“Icarus.”

Icarus

Afterward

In Greek mythology, Icarus was imprisoned on an island with his father, Daedalus, until Daedalus fashioned wings for the two of them to escape. Icarus was so overjoyed at the sensation of flight that he didn’t heed his father’s warning that the wax which held his wings together would melt if he flew too high. And so, he tumbled into the ocean. As a society, we derive the moral of this tale to be: “Don’t fly too close to the Sun.” But what about the one he left behind? What if Icarus had a brother, so afraid of repeating his sins that he never flew at all, that his own personality and ambition and self faded until gone?

To me, this is an integral part of the human condition: fading. For some, the fear of falling is so deep-seated that we never get around to climbing or jumping, let alone flying. For some, intentional mediocrity — be it economic, relational, or otherwise — is preferable to euphoria followed by disaster. This is a choice all we have to make, and deeply influenced by what we witness others experience. The relative of the unsuccessful business owner or the disgraced former celebrity, the child of divorce, the man who was not there to stop his brother’s foolish death: these individuals may walk around their whole lives with wings on their back, and never spread them until it’s too late. 

Fear causes us to fade, yes, but it’s also shame. A figurative survivor’s guilt (literal survivor’s guilt in the case of the story) that keeps us from trying where others have failed. Each person gets to decide what kind of effect this condition will have on them. We need to remember, when we’re trying to learn from Icarus, the inverse of his lesson: if we fly too far from the Sun, our wings will freeze.

Caitlyn Klinepeter-Persing is a Psychology major at Indiana University, with minors in Spanish and Counseling. Her work focuses on poetry and short stories, with a few longer pieces in the works. Her creative interests include love/heartbreak, being queer in the Evangelical church, cautionary tales, and political satire. Her favorite authors are Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand. 

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